Bela Tarr Retrospective: Introduction

In my recent Short Film Saturday post I talked of a perfect introduction to Bela Tarr. As I will discuss in these and other pieces that form the retrospective on his works, in light of my bestowing upon him the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award, such assimilation can prove to be rather difficult. My baptism in his works was one by fire. Therefore, it’s always hard to try and think outside of your frame of reference to try and ease someone else in.

I at first toyed with the notion of going through his works, which are not as numerous as last year’s winner (Spielberg), chronologically. However, if I were to start at the very beginning, and I likely will head there at some point, we would discuss films that pre-date the metamorphosis of his aesthetic.

Bela Tarr is fascinating for myriad reasons, but one of the most apparent is that rarely has a filmography featured so strong a departure in style. Tarr’s early works in the 1970s were in the zeitgeist, which was stark documentarianism. Cinéma vérité was the vogue amidst a wave of talented Hungarian filmmakers. Starting in 1982 he became increasingly more stylized.

Satantango (1994, Facets)

Tarr was my doorway into the world of Hungarian cinema. It’s a culture I do like to explore periodically and have learned more about since being introduced to it through his eyes. What the chronological approach would seemingly negate is the veritable reason he won this award. It’s not that his earlier works aren’t good, there is in the scripting his essence. In fact, a title like Family Nest translated his insistence that all his films are comedy better than any others. However, his early films featured his voice speaking a seemingly foreign tongue. His real cinematic voice was not truly heard, did not differentiate itself, or make itself unique until his style broke off from its initial sensibility.

Some have referred to his hour-and-change rendition of MacBeth for Hungarian television, that was shot in two takes, and Almanac of the Fall as more transitional titles than ones that show the true power of his later style. However, if one watches The Prefab People and then MacBeth back-to-back it’s fairly staggering. You may not even realize it’s the same director. Whereas if you sample the Prologue from Visions of Europe you very soon know Tarr and if you see a famous tracking shot from Satantango, The Turin Horse or Werckmeister Harmonies you know it’s the same person.

So next week when I do return and write about a specific film, I will begin after the break and then if I feel so compelled I will backtrack to the beginning and deal with his earlier works before he revolutionized his own style.

The Turin Horse (2011, Cinema Guild))

While in each post I will focus on the specific film at hand when you have a writer/director who insists on challenging an audience, on letting us “use our eyes,” a man who also is disinterested in stories in the traditional sense, you will have running themes. Throughout his career, especially after he broke the mold, his films were creating thematic dialogues. The culmination of which was his masterful dissertation in The Turin Horse. When you have running themes there will be parallels between films to be drawn. I will try to keep those to a minimum and focus on the title at hand.

While Tarr got me into chasing down Hungarian cinema, I knew pretty quickly he had a unique voice. However, I soon also found out that his voice could have only been developed in the Hungary’s film culture, on the arthouse end of the spectrum, of course.

Like any filmmaker, Tarr’s work as auteurist as it is, is a collaboration. As he worked towards his reportedly last film the pieces started to come into place to solidify his style. The editing of Agnes Hranitzky since The Outsider in 1981; Fred Kelemen as DP for some of his later projects starting with Journey on the Plain; novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai had writing or co-writing credit on all of Tarr’s features starting with Damnation in 1988; composer Mihaly Vig has been on board since Almanac of the Fall in 1984. Together these people shared a commonality that helped to accentuate Tarr’s vision and bring it to the world such that it could not only be admired, but challenge the way it was intended to.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Facets)

In the end, I got in my first revisit just in time to start this series on time. However, so as not to under-serve the challenge I’ve set for myself I decided on a true introduction piece to be followed by film-specific pieces. Tarr’s cinema is not one that is suited for “hit-me entertainment,” it insists you prod back and in deference to that fact, and out of respect, I will ruminate on Werckmeister Harmonies‘ mesmerizing and brilliant brutality a bit more.

To get a bit more of a glimpse into this creative mind, to see where he’s coming from. Here’s an excerpt from a piece he wrote called Why I Make Films, which he wrote during preproduction of Damnation:

Because I despise stories, as they mislead people into believing that something has happened. In fact, nothing really happens as we flee from one condition to another. Because today there are only states of being – all stories have become obsolete and clichéd, and have resolved themselves. All that remains is time. This is probably the only thing that is still genuine – time itself: the years, days, hours, minutes and seconds. And film time has also ceased to exist, since the film itself has ceased to exist. Luckily there is no authentic form or current fashion. Some kind of massive introversion, a searching of our own souls can help ease the situation.

Or kill us.

We could die of not being able to make films, or we could die from making films.

But there’s no escape.

Because films are our only means of authenticating our lives. Eventually nothing remains of us except our films – strips of celluloid on which our shadows wander in search of truth and humanity until the end of time.
I really don’t know why I make films.

Perhaps to survive, because I’d still like to live, at least just a little longer…

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